Why Europe will not reach a 20% resource-use reduction with food waste targets alone

December 16th 2013


Erik Gerritsen

With the help of agri-food and packaging industry, international institutions and a few clever NGO’s, food waste became one of the key issues on the European sustainable food agenda in 2012. And rightly so. Globally, around 30% of food grown is never eaten. Europe is not doing much better, with 90 billion tonnes of good food wasted every year. l.

In the EU, there is political momentum to tackle the issue; the European Commission wants to reduce food waste by half by 2020, and several other European governments have proposed ambitious targets, with France in the vanguard announcing that it will follow the EU Parliament’s example. Many of these plans feature in the national Waste Prevention Programmes (WPP’s) that all EU Member States have to present by 13 December this year.

As Professor Tim Lang of City University rightly pointed out in a recent essay, food waste is the symptom of a bigger problem – not the problem itself. For effective solutions, one needs to look into the larger drivers behind the current unsustainable global food system in which European countries operate. These drivers have been well documented in recent years[1], and in the European context the main driver are wasteful demand patterns.

As any economics student will tell you, demand is made up of a variety of factors including price, cost of labour, as well as access to capital. Currently the price of our food does not include the cost to the environment and society and  ideally this discrepancy needs to be reduced from the bottom-up, for example through combinations of smart resource pricing, fair wages, equal standards and an honest price development through the value chain. This is not an easy task. Governments and industry resist increases in the price of food, as they are aware of how price sensitive citizens are for staple goods.

An example of this reluctance to factor in environmental costs is the Spanish government’s failure to implement an effective water pricing system. This is worrying as large parts of the country’s former farmlands have already turned into desert because of wasteful water use in agriculture. Another important reason is strategic behaviour in industries. The need for retailers to compete with low-cost food — and farmers unable to make a stable income, are not only fuelling a race to the bottom in Europe, but also increasingly outside of Europe as we look to get our cheap food elsewhere.

Food chains can be rigid and change relies on shifting human behaviour. While not impossible, the message for communicating food waste can be difficult to get across. The abundance of low-cost food can lead to a depreciation of the true value of food. This in turn, is one of the drivers of food waste. Consumers need to learn the full value and impact of their food choice. If this cannot simply be driven by consumers, then perhaps we need to look at imposing levies that will include the full environmental costs of our food.

In terms of promoting sustainable food the European Commission is concentrating mostly on waste reduction as it is the ’least politically sensitive’ of all the options. It doesn’t involve crossing retailers who have resisted pricing ’bad foods’ off the market, or in some cases ban them completely. Most importantly it doesn’t involve taking on the fast food lobbiess which have been able to exert so much pressure on what we eat.

But if the Commission is serious about tackling food demand and reducing its environmental footprint it will have to take on a variety of measures sincerely; it will have to robustly tackle what people consume and what impact this has on the environment. If something like the LiveWell diet can yield a 25% reduction in carbon footprint and other environmental benefits while delivering on health and wellbeing – should we not be looking at combining several strategies to freeze the footprint of food?

Erik Gerritsen
LiveWell Policy Officer – WWF European Policy Office

[1] For example: http://ec.europa.eu/research/agriculture/scar/pdf/scar_feg_ultimate_version.pdf OR http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/current-projects/global-food-and-farming-futures

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